3D printing assists Ford development

Ford has said it uses 3D printing to reduce development time through the production of prototype parts that enable designers and engineers to quickly test and refine different approaches.

Traditional prototyping methods require special tools and can be time‑consuming. Ford can print a 3D part in a few hours and, for as little as £750, open up the opportunity for more experimentation and more radical, innovative design.

For the Ford GT, designers used laser 3D printing techniques to help create the F1-style steering wheel with integrated driver controls and the transmission paddle-shift controls. Engineers also printed key lightweight structural components for the upward-swinging doors.

For customers with their own 3D printer The Ford 3D Store offers the first automaker‑authorised one-stop store for 3D-printable files. As well as enabling customers to print their own Ford GT, templates for a further 1,000 models also include the Fiesta ST, Focus ST and the F-150 Raptor.

‘3D computer printing technology has totally changed the way we design and develop new vehicles. We can be more creative in trying to find potential solutions, and for the customer this means that our cars are better able to incorporate the latest thinking in design and technology,’ said Sandro Piroddi, Ford of Europe’s Rapid Technology supervisor.

Ford bought the third 3D printing machine ever produced in 1988, and has since produced its 500,000th 3D printed part globally – an engine cover for the all-new Ford Mustang. Today’s printers are quicker, more cost efficient, and incredibly accurate and can be used to produce prototypes for a wide variety of parts.

The first step in bringing a vehicle design to life is a sketch produced by the Ford Design team. Clay modellers then make a scale model and later a full-size version of the vehicle to assess proportions and develop the design. In parallel, digital sculptors create a model using computer-aided design (CAD). The two models are developed together, leveraging the strengths of both disciplines.  While some parts are worked in clay, more complex or detailed items are mostly developed digitally and often 3D printed – which is where Rapid Prototype teams at Ford’s Dunton Technical Centre, in Essex and at its European headquarters in Germany come into play.

Rapid Prototyping helps to evaluate the design and uses one of a number of techniques to create the piece they are working on, including 3D printing. The latter requires CAD software that ‘slices’ parts into paper‑thin layers that can be built up into a 3D printed prototype. How robust the prototype part needs to be determines the material used.  It can be plastic, sand, or metal. Layer by layer, the materials are fused together into the desired shape using a laser.

After printing, excess material is dissolved away and the part can be finished by sanding or painting. The completed part is then available to the design studio or test facility.

‘Incredible as it is that 3D printing has been around for more than 25 years, it is a technology that is moving more quickly than ever before, opening up new ways of manufacturing the cars of the future,’ added Piroddi.